Written by: Rik

Date posted: December 20, 2018

A visit to the old folks’ home – a guarantee of uplifting conversation.

Although The Blackwell Convergence wasn’t necessarily without issues, there was nevertheless a real sense of potential being realised and a series stepping up its game. That upward trend continues with this follow-up, which not only refines everything that was already good about previous Blackwell titles but adds an extra element that elevates them to an even higher level. It’s a longer, better structured game that makes unexpectedly ambitious moves at its conclusion that will even surprise and delight those with high expectations based on their enjoyment of previous titles.

We could almost leave it at that: those who have followed our write-ups of Blackwell thus far will already have taken note of our recommendations and decided to follow them, or not. Or, more likely, taken note of and followed (or not) the recommendations provided by contemporary reviews and coverage. Here come the perpetually out of date FFG guys with their hot take on a seven year-old game! They’re comparatively short games, too, and potentially could have been taken together as a series. But indulge us, won’t you, as we try and explain why we like this particular chapter in a way that attempts to avoid spoilers for those who haven’t played it, while hopefully also engaging the interest of those that have. [That’s more than enough deconstruction of motivations and intentions, thanks – Ed.]

Following the pattern set in Convergence, we join our odd-couple duo of paranormal investigators, Rosa Blackwell and Joey Mallone, midway through a short case examining strange goings-on aboard a luxury yacht. This mini-case acts both as an introduction to the characters and as a tutorial, so any players who decide to jump straight into this game without playing the others will get to grips with what’s going on. (I think it does work as a standalone game, but I’d highly recommend playing previous titles for the full experience. It depends on your perspective on these things: I’m kind of a completist who can’t understand why someone might advise you to, say, start on Season 2 of a TV series because the first one doesn’t hit their quality standards. But each to their own.)

Rosa pretends to seek the advice of a psychic. Guess what? She thinks you need help.

After the conclusion of yacht-based shenanigans, and opening credits, you’re into the game proper, which begins when Rosa is contacted by an old colleague from her newspaper days and asked for assistance with a story. It’s a nice nod to The Blackwell Legacy and Rosa’s past as a journalist, which could easily have been forgotten or passed over following the events of intervening games. From helping out an old friend, it’s onto the business of investigating and saving lost souls. Once again, these individual cases are brilliantly realised, drawing you into the mysteries to be solved by making you genuinely care about who these ghosts once were as people, finding out what happened to them and helping them accept their fate.

It’s not an ultra-serious game in terms of tone (and, as previously noted, maintaining a good balance of light and dark is a strength of the series as a whole) but there’s still something particularly sad about the cases in Deception. Without giving too much away, the moments when all of the individual plot threads start to come together are particularly sinister, mixing the world of the paranormal with the more straightforward unpleasantness of those with less than honest intentions in real life. Inspired by the experiences of developer Dave Gilbert while taking part in a failed investigation into phony psychics, there’s something about the exploitation and manipulation of vulnerable people in this game that rings very true. The baddies in this game aren’t giant demons from another dimension, they’re understated characters who hide in plain sight, which somehow escalates the level of threat when they finally come to reveal themselves.

The effectiveness of these characters is, as we’ve noted previously, testament to the quality of the writing. And, yet again, the minor players shine almost as much as the main ones. In Deception, to take one low-key example, there’s an interesting dynamic between a woman and her mother-in-law during the early stages. In the broadest handling of these characters, they might be seen as an archetypal spoiled bitch of a wife that turns her husband against his mother and convinces him to put the poor old dear into a home. Here, it’s more nuanced than that: in time, you come to see both sides of the story, as the daughter-in-law lets her guard down just enough for a momentary glimpse of humanity. (Unfortunately, the older woman’s voice-over work is one of the game’s rare bum notes, clearly a case of a younger actor doing an ‘old Granny’ voice, a weakness acknowledged by Gilbert).

Going undercover at a grubby nightspot.

It’s been interesting to track the development of different story and gameplay elements over the course of the series, and following the developer’s commentary during a second playthrough (a more significant undertaking here than with previous games, given Deception‘s more substantial playing time) provides an opportunity to marry up your own observations with those of the developer, as well as picking up interesting new tidbits of information. For example, those who found the first game in particular too wordy will note steady improvement in terms of reducing and sharpening the dialogue, and something confirmed as a priority in the commentary here.

Meanwhile, the interface has again been given a few tweaks: Rosa now has a smartphone which allows her to contact other characters, perform internet searches and monitor clues, and in this respect the phone replaces the notepad of previous games. The need to combine clues returns, albeit in a pared-down format so that it’s invoked only when necessary, and feels more intuitive than before. And there’s still the need to make your own connections and investigations by Googling (sorry, Oogling) various clues, which adds that satisfying element of olde-time adventuring to an otherwise very straightforward adventure.

We find out a little bit more about our two heroes here – Joey’s smartarsery has been toned down over the series, and the segment during one of the cases where he has to try and chat up a fellow ghoul is a nice way of giving him the spotlight for an extended period instead of him just being the sidekick who makes wisecracks and can go through doors and blow on things. (This is another section where, in the wrong hands, the story could have taken a very icky turn, but it steers itself just down the right side of the cute/yuck divide). Rosa, on the other hand, continues to go from strength to strength, in this game dealing with a case that involves an old friend and some subject matter that hits close to home. There are also some fun callbacks to previous games, as well as the freeware predecessor Bestowers of Eternity, for fans to spot.

Hint: that’s not all he can say. You can make him say more.

We criticised Convergence‘s end sections for trying and failing to add an epic finish, but no such criticisms apply here. The tension ratchets up towards the end, and the sense of threat is palpable, with unexpected developments right at the last. Get through all of that and there’s suddenly a real sense of your investigations being part of something much bigger. Blackwell’s little stories have always been effective, but here Deception unexpectedly reaches towards more epic ground and somehow pulls it off. And, almost from nowhere, you’re looking forward to a big finish in the fifth and final entry in the series. For all of that, The Blackwell Deception deserves high praise indeed.